In the 1940s, the days of wine and roses and Red Blaik, the great Army teams of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis fame met Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium, captivating the nation at a time when college football held Americans' interest with more totality than the NFL. The 1958 NFL Championship Game – the event which catapulted pro football to the forefront of the nation's consciousness – unfolded at the very same Yankee Stadium where Army and Notre Dame locked horns, but that memorable moment was not yet on the horizon. Service-academy football commanded a substantial place in the heart of America's sporting consciousness. Yes, in the 1940s, Army and Yankee Stadium went together the way butter and bread did. Army football was synonymous with quality; excellence was expected. The halcyon days of a proud program created a sensation from coast to coast, and everywhere else Army people lived.
This past Saturday, one year after Army's first game in the new Yankee Stadium against Notre Dame, the Black Knights returned to the Bronx to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. This was a chance to restore a winning identity inside the home of the New York Yankees, an organization that knows a thing or 27 about winning. This was a chance to own the New York stage against a foe that had risen to the upper reaches of the Big East Conference. This was a chance to stay in contention for a bowl game, duplicating the feat achieved by last year's team. This was a chance to shrug off the nightmarish outing against Air Force and show that the Brave Old Army Team, for all of the hard knocks it had endured through its first nine games, could still produce something special in week 10.
Once again, the level of fight from coach Rich Ellerson's team was superb. Army competed with vigor, determination and persistence against Rutgers, facing a team in the upper reaches of a power conference and meeting it on even terms through 46 minutes (technically 45 minutes and 58 seconds). Once again, however, a spirited and inspired effort was undone by the mistakes and wobbles that service-academy teams cannot afford.
It's hard enough to lose yet another game and fall out of the running for a bowl game, depriving this program of the December bowl practices it clearly benefited from last year. (The fruit of those practices was found not only in the Armed Forces Bowl win over SMU, but in very credible performances this September against San Diego State and Northwestern, two teams that will likely go bowling this year.) What's exponentially more difficult to absorb is the fact that the Black Knights haven't learned lessons. It's true that the tripping call which negated Stephen Fraser's 51-yard run – a run that would have put Army in position to take a 19-13 lead (or perhaps a 20-13 advantage on a 2-point conversion) in the fourth quarter – was one of the less convincing calls in the history of tripping calls. It's true that the notion of allowing teams to decide a game was, if not violated, at least challenged by the officiating crew which made the call. However, one week after the officials plainly took away a touchdown that Army earned on a Max Jenkins quarterback sneak against Air Force, the Black Knights knew the score. They knew what all athletes come to know when they endure some difficult gameday moments: Playing through bad calls is one of the central tests of competitive athletics. One call can and will carry a lot of weight in a close game if made at the wrong time, but good teams – bowl teams, winning teams – rise above them to prevail. Army was down by a 13-12 margin when that penalty occurred. Moreover, the Black Knights could have been tied at 13 if they had made an extra point. What's certain is that Army needed more than 13 points to win the game; the opportunity to win still existed and the portal to success still lay in plain sight.
That's when Army faltered, as was the case against Miami University and Air Force as well. On some Saturdays, the house falls down, as the Brave Old Army Team experienced firsthand against Northern Illinois and Vanderbilt, but this was yet another occasion in which Army had to look past that dubious call and finish the job against a sputtering Rutgers offense that was impressively contained by the Black Knights' defensive eleven. Perhaps it was too much to expect Army, especially with its third-string quarterback, Angel Santiago, to rebound from that penalty on that drive. However, the boys from West Point needed to maintain contact and wait for the moment when they could gain new leverage with a favorable drive start or a high-impact defensive play. So many miles had yet to be run with the score still 13-12 and the finish line still far away.
Then it happened.
Just when Army was about to flip the field on a punt with over 6:30 left in regulation, disaster struck. A collapse on the punt protection unit allowed the Scarlet Knights to say "nighty-Knight" by blocking a punt and returning it 32 yards for a score. Because of Army's missed PAT in the first minute of the fourth quarter, Rutgers claimed an eight-point lead instead of a seven-point edge, and that extra point allows a defense to be extra aggressive because it knows that if it allows a touchdown, it can still succeed by stopping the tying 2-point try. Rutgers's defense flourished down the stretch, and as a result, a game that was even-steven (minus a missed PAT) through 46 minutes turned into a deceptively close 15-point final score.
One can't say this was an aberrational occurrence within the larger flow of the 2011 season. Getting the short end of the stick from the officials was part of it, but the larger theme – the only theme that matters, the theme that the Black Knights had a chance to rewrite on the field – is that Army couldn't overcome the bad breaks that came its way. Much as Army fumbled at the 1 with a 14-0 lead at Air Force a week ago, its special teams unit couldn't maintain a one-point deficit and extend the endgame phase long enough to perhaps elicit a crucial mistake from Rutgers. Tension points, pressure points, hinge points – these "points" have simply not turned Army's way this season, and that's a product of failing to find the right responses at the right times. Army showed that it could answer the bell against Northwestern, but that situational supremacy has been the exception rather than the rule in West Point this year.
Army returned to the ballpark of America's most successful sports franchise this past Saturday, but another trip to the Bronx did nothing more than yank around this team's – and it's fan base's – emotions. It's been that kind of a year for Army, a year which needs to be studied with intensity and honesty when the 2012 season comes calling.
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